The Law of Compounding Delay

Here, for your edification, is an observation from a lifetime of procrastination. In a phrase, it’s an unintended consequence of not getting onto things promptly. (Guilty!)

This unfortunate dynamic has played itself out many times in my life, and continues to do so. On uncounted occasions, when i put something off — five hours or five minutes doesn’t seem to make much difference — once i finally start, i find myself further delayed by some unforeseen circumstance. It could be anything: I miss the bus by two minutes. A person i need to talk to just left for lunch. There’s some form i need, but the office just closed for the weekend, so my five-minute delay (“What difference could that possibly make?”) costs me two days’ wait.

In my experience it happens a lot — often enough that it deserves a law of its own: the Law of Compounding Delay, codifying the perverse way time treats the procrastinator. Simply stated:

Any delay in the starting of a task or project leads to a greater delay in the finishing of it.

Or, if mathematical theorems are more to your taste:

Any project begun with a delay of X
will finish with a delay of Y, where Y > X.

Delay, in other words, compounds like the interest in a bank account once did (back when there was interest), but not in a helpful way.

This idea hit me a while ago, and i thought it must be a trivial commonplace. But the google search i just did for “law of compounding delay” (in quotes) unexpectedly gives zero results — so what you are reading now may be that rara avis, a simple idea with no online presence.

Google being Google, of course, they give 6.3 million results for the search without the quotes. I didn’t check them all, but the first three pages are all about compound interest, economics, tax penalties, and various arcane legal topics.

There is a hint of tangentially related material: for instance, in economics as the “cost of delay” — but nothing at all about time management or the evils of procrastination.

So maybe the idea has been cast under another name … or maybe you’re reading it here first!


In my experience it almost never happens that a delay proves advantageous. There’s always a cost — at the very least, further delay, and if you’re unlucky, a monetary cost as well. My record is a $330 property tax penalty, because i got to the Ukee district office about two minutes after it had closed.

Have you noticed this phenomenon yourself? Did you do your PhD thesis on it, and call it something else? Let us know in the comments.

2 thoughts on “The Law of Compounding Delay

  1. Of course I studied the book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and went to a seminar with Covey. Pretty good stuff. Here’s a link to a guy who has summarized Habit 3: Beat Procrastination and Time-Wasting.

    ONE thing I took away from my seminar was this: for prioritizing a multitude of tasks. Divide an 8.5″ x 11″ sheet into 4 quadrants. Title them as follows: 1. Important and Urgent 2. Important and Not Urgent 3. Urgent and Not Important 4. Not Urgent and Not Important

    So whenever something or someone needed something from me — Inbox stuff, phone calls, etc — I immediately slotted it into one of those quadrants. It helped me so much! A lot of what came to me was not urgent and not important, and labelling it right away freed me from a lot of useless work.

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